In the spring of 2013, I sent a desperate email to a friend to say that I'd made a terrible mistake and written a novel and now what the hell was I supposed to do? Since I'd never intended to write a novel, I'd never bothered to find out. I mean, I had fiction-writing friends, but when they talked about submissions and agents and "pitch sessions," I just tuned them out. My ability to simply not listen when people are talking is impressive. But the other thing that's impressive is that when there's a skill I need to know? I will learn the fuck out of it (as evidenced by the fact that I did get an agent and then she sold my novel and now I'm writing this so as to avoid hitting refresh every few seconds to check the count on the Goodreads giveaway because Oh my god, what if we can't even give this thing away.)
In the time I was looking for an agent, I tracked down so many interviews and query letter examples and sales announcements that I could make a career out of query-coaching. But that sounds like a nightmare. Anyway, I learned a lot, and now I don't need it, so here you go:
Step 1) Understand your book. You have to know what you've written, and not just so that you can explain it (though you are going to have to explain it, and in concise and interesting ways), but also because you need to know where it fits in the marketplace. What kind of readers would buy this book? What imprints/editors reach those readers? What agents sell books to those editors? If you can't trace this line, you've got a very tough road ahead of you.
When you think about where your book belongs, one of two things should become clear to you: 1) You’ve written the sort of book with mass appeal that a big, advance-paying house will be interested in, and therefore you need and can attract an agent (generally this has to do with the premise and not the quality of the writing, which is going to have to be good either way); or 2) You’ve written a finely crafted piece of literature (or god forbid a short story collection) that lacks the marketable appeal a big house is looking for, but will likely be much appreciated by smart editors at an independent or university press. Sadly, there will be no advance (or not much), and you probably don’t need an agent and will have a tougher time attracting one. (Keep in mind, that some of the bigger indies like Tin House Books don’t take unsolicited unagented submissions, so if you’ve written something really really good, like award-winningly good, you should probably still try for an agent first, even if the premise is on the quieter side.)
It is really important at this moment to pick the path that is right for your book. You should not be approaching agents and also sending your novel to University presses and contests. This is in part because you don’t want to burn out opportunities at presses your future agent would be better equipped to approach on your behalf, but it’s also because a scattershot approach tells us that you have no clue where your book belongs and you’re not in a good position to advocate for it.
I have zero experience approaching independent publishers about fiction, so let's just assume that you’ve written a smart interesting book with a marketable premise, and you need an agent.
Step 2) Research agents. I’d recommend a combination of 2 sites, Querytracker and Publisher’s Marketplace, followed by a Google search. You should read whatever you can find on the agents you’re considering. Interviews are especially great. Poets & Writers does an interview series that is phenomenal. Read the guidelines agents post on their websites. Often, they’ll tell you what they’re looking for, and they generally mean it. Some agents will have minimal information on their website. The less information they have available, the less aggressively they’re looking for new clients.
Querytracker is a great starting place. Search for agents by genre and start digging through that list. It includes links to interviews, websites, etc, and it will also give you some stats on how often they request manuscripts, how long they take to reply, which is interesting and fun to obsess over. (Does it actually probably matter? No.) They will also tell you whether an agent is open to queries. Generally speaking, I would ignore a “closed to queries” on QT because it’s unreliable. If an agency website or Publishers Marketplace page lists an agent as closed to queries, don’t send them any queries. There’s probably someone else at that agency you can try.
Publishers Marketplace is a goldmine of information. Do keep in mind that the sales reports are voluntary and incomplete, but in general, you can see who is making real sales to the imprints where you think your book belongs. It is absolutely worth the $25/month fee during the time you’re actively researching agents. Beyond that, it is a mindfuck. You will make yourself crazy studying other people’s six and seven figure deals, and you should know that very few people get six or seven figure deals. The average advance on a first novel is something like 15,000 dollars and they pay it out in thirds, fourths if you’re lucky enough to get a hardcover. So… be careful with Publishers Marketplace. In a perfect world, you could do all the research on every agent before you start querying and then shut it off. Sadly, querying doesn’t really work like that.
Obviously some agents are powerhouses. They've sold books you’ve read by authors you love. This is exciting and you should submit to these agents, not because the agent is A-list, but because there’s probably a reason the books they’ve sold resonate with you. But what if the agent you’re looking at isn’t a powerhouse? What are you looking for? First and foremost, the agency. Is the agency reputable? Are there experienced agents there who are likely to give advice and encouragement to your future agent? Has this new agent worked as an assistant to a really strong, experienced agent? What kinds of sales has the agent made? What other industry experience do they bring to the table? New agents at good agencies can be great options because they're still early in building their list.
Step 3) Write a query letter. Your query letter needs to do 3 things. One, indicate that you know who they are and have good reason to think they'd be interested in your book. Two, describe your book in an interesting way. Three, introduce you to the agent. Your query letter will look a little different depending on whether your novel is literary or genre fiction. There are lots of examples online, but here's the general idea.
Step 4) Once you’ve polished and perfected the query, send it to 10 agents. Choose a good mix of established and newer agents.
For email submissions, the subject line should read Query: Title (Genre) unless of course, the agent specifies otherwise.
Unless the agent’s guidelines specifically state “Query Only,” include the first 5 pages pasted below the signature. Often agents will ask for the first 5 pages (or some other number).
None, nothing, you’ll never hear from them
Personal declines (rare)—love the premise, but the first 5 pages were too slow for me.
Requests for more material:
They may want a partial (100 pages, 3 chapters, send whatever they ask)
They may want the full manuscript. “Thanks for thinking of me. Please do send.”
They may want you to include a synopsis which is a 1-2 page dry walk through the entire plot including the ending and they are horrible to write. Good luck. There are examples on-line.
If out of 10 queries you don’t get at least 2 requests for more material, 1 of 2 things is happening: 1) your query isn’t really working and you need to go back to the drawing board and rewrite it from scratch; 2) you’re sending your query to agents who are not right for your book. Both of these problems are an indication that you need to spend more time thinking what kind of book you've written.
Let’s assume though, that you’re getting a 20% or better request rate. Keep going. Do not wait on responses to fulls as they may never actually materialize much less turn into an offer of representation.
If at some point an agent replies with feedback you could use to make the book stronger (and the advice resonates with you), stop querying and revise. Any requests you get from outstanding queries, just reply with “Thank you so much for your interest. I’m in the middle of a revision based on recent agent feedback, but I will send you the manuscript by X date.”
Other possible things:
An agent asks for an exclusive. If the timeline is short (2-4 weeks) and no one else is already reading it, and the agent is a total rock star, you can go for it. I’d generally recommend against it. Hopefully, you have to reply, “I wish I could grant you an exclusive look, but the manuscript is already being read by several other agents. I do hope you’d still be interested in reading with the assurance that I would not make any decisions regarding representation without giving you the opportunity to respond.” They will almost always still read.
Revise and resubmit. The agent liked your book. They didn’t like some things though. They want you to make changes and they’re not going to sign you until you do (and maybe not even then). If the suggestions resonate, go for it. Not every “I liked it but didn’t love this” is an invitation to resubmit. Sometimes it’s just specific feedback, though it wouldn’t be wrong to requery in this case.
General Querying Rules:
Can you requery an agent with the same book? No.
Can you query a different agent at the same agency? Usually. Unless their guidelines say a no from one is a no from all.
How long should you wait before assuming a no-response is a no? Unless their guidelines say otherwise, 8 weeks. This is important because you may want to query another agent at that agency and you can’t while the first is considered active.
When should you nudge an agent on a query? Never, unless they say otherwise in their guidelines, i.e. “I try to reply to every query, so if you haven’t heard from me in X weeks, please resend.”
When should you nudge an agent with a full or partial? After 6 months unless they indicated they’d reply sooner (and "Can't wait to read! I'll get back to you soon!" doesn't count.)
Some people will tell you that you have no chance of getting a decent agent without a personal referral. This is just not true. A personal referral and a great query will get you the same thing: a read on your manuscript, nothing else.
Other people will tell you that if you’ve written a great book, any agent will sign you. This is not true either, so don’t take the declines as an indication that your book is not good. Agents specialize. They have very specific tastes and specific relationships with specific editors who have their own specific tastes. You are probably going to face a lot of rejection.
Eventually, you will get an email that says something along the lines of I loved reading your book, but there were aspects that could be stronger. Are you open to revisions? And you’ll say yes. They’ll ask for a phone call. The agent will say lovely things about your book and your writing. They will have ideas for making it better. In addition you’ll want to ask them questions like:
What’s your approach to revisions?
What imprints do you envision sending this book to? (They will already have a list. That’s why they want your book. This is your chance to see if you have the same vision.)
What’s your submission plan? (Not just where, but how?)
What happens if we can’t sell this?
Do you use an agency contract? What’s in it? What do I need to know?
This conversation will be a blur, honestly. You can always follow up with more questions via email. You can ask for the names of clients to email for recommendations.
Generally speaking, it is poor etiquette to accept an offer if other agents are reading your manuscript, so you don’t have to give the agent an answer over the phone. You do have to give them a deadline. 1-2 weeks at the most.
The minute you are off the phone, you need to email all of the agents who have the manuscript. Reply to any previous correspondence, but change the subject line to read “Offer of Representation re: TITLE.” Let them know that you have an offer (don’t say who) and that you have a deadline of X date. Some of them will step aside at this point because they’re too busy to read it in that time frame. Some of them will finally start reading the manuscript they asked for 7 months ago. It’s not a bad idea to send a note to agents with outstanding queries from the last month. Some of these agents will immediately ask for the manuscript. This week or two will be really exciting. Hopefully, you’ll have more phone calls and then you’ll have to make a decision. You will probably like all of the agents you’ve spoken with, and you’ll feel stressed out. In the end you’ll accept someone’s offer and then let everyone else know. You may or may not have to do revisions with your agent at this point, and then eventually they will submit your book to editors. It’s all going to be completely awful and you should talk to your doctor about anxiety medication and sleeping pills.